Seattle is famous for Starbucks, the Space Needle, and, of course, grunge, the early-Nineties movement responsible for producing rock icons like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. For his new book, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music (released earlier this month on ECW Press), author Greg Prato interviewed more than 130 of the city’s musicians, journalists, industry executives and concertgoers to compile a detailed oral history of its unique scene. The list of voices includes Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Mark Arm, Matt Cameron, Chad Channing, Jack Endino, Duff McKagan and Hiro Yamamoto.
“I wanted to tell the story from the very beginning of how grunge began,” Prato says. Arguing that the scene’s roots stretch back to bands like the Wailers and the Sonics, Grunge is Dead traces Seattle’s progression from the Fifties and Sixties garage-punk groups to West Coast punk influences in the Seventies and Eighties. By the end of the Eighties, groups like Malfunkshun and Screaming Trees were incubating a new “Seattle sound” that eventually became grunge. “That’s when I think Seattle rock music was at its peak,” Prato adds.
While scoring an interview with Layne Staley’s mother gets an honorable mention, the most significant interviewee has to be Pearl Jam’s Vedder, whose band has become Seattle’s last great surviving grunge ambassadors. In a lengthy phone interview with Prato, the notoriously guarded Vedder, calling from Hawaii, opened up.
“At one point, he was speaking to me while sitting on the beach and looking out at the sunset over the water,” Prato remembers. “He first got the tape from Jeff [Ament] and Stone [Gossard] to write some songs for Pearl Jam, he went out surfing that day and he came up with two or three songs, including ‘Once’ and ‘Alive.’ [Eddie] said that he can pretty much thank his whole career to that one day of surfing that put him in the right state of mind that he was able to come up with those two great, classic songs.”
Prato’s book takes its name from an iconic picture of Seattle’s most recognizable figure — Kurt Cobain, who was snapped wearing a shirt proclaiming “Grunge is Dead” while holding his infant daughter Frances Bean. The interviews provide vivid perspective on many events throughout the city’s musical history from house parties to the catastrophic deaths of Cobain and fellow Seattle icon Andrew Wood. Grunge Is Dead wraps with some of the artists’ reflections on how the scene’s music holds up over time. “I’m always pleasantly surprised when I heard something that I haven’t heard in a while,” Ament told Prato. “I feel like there were a couple of things that I would maybe change,” Vedder said, referring to his own band, “but I’m not ashamed.”
(Take a look at Nineties bands that are reuniting right now in our ’90s Returns gallery.)